For some, southern cuisine is like a warm hug igniting memories of home and childhood. For others, it’s bold flavors that interact in exciting ways. There are so many different ways to look at southern cuisine because there are so many different ways to define it. All delicious, but all distinctly different. However, there is one thing that connects them all together: “'Down South’ cuisine, to me, is all about generosity and hospitality,” says Kat Gordon with Muddy’s Bake Shop (Memphis).
Baked beans are a Southern tradition. Shown: Watermelon Baked Beans with watermelon barbecue sauce. Photo courtesy National Watermelon Promotion Board
“Growing up in the south I wa s surrounded by folks whose love language was sharing food. The cuisine varies but there's an underlying sense of community, resourcefulness, and graciousness that infuses it. What gives the food that distinctive 'flavor' is the car e taken in preparing and serving it.”
Traditionally, southern cuisine can be broken down into six styles: Soul Food, Cajun, Creole, Gullah, Low Country, and Floribbean.
“Growing up in South Texas, having a large family in the Louisiana area, and spending several years in the Florida Georgia line, Southern cuisine has a far stretch,” Chef Todd Ruiz (The RK Group) says. “I think back to my roots of Tex Mex, barbecue, and those influences of Cajun and Creole cuisine that influenced my upbringing. Boudin, cracklins and crawfish boils were prominent. Then moving to the Florida/Georgia area of the US and experiencing a whole other version of Southern food. Floribbean flavors, Low Country shrimp boils, shrimp and grits, whole hog cooking, fresh oysters, local shrimp, pimento cheese, corn bread, and boiled peanuts all are part of my culinary experiences and repertoire.”
This style of cooking was first developed in the deep south in slave quarters of Southern plantations where families used simple ingredients and simple cooking techniques which produced complex flavors.
"Chicken on a Stick" with kombucha hot sauce, and celery root slaw from Chef Meredith Clinton with Black Sheep Catering (Memphis). Photo courtesy Catersource Staff
A few signature dishes associated with Soul Food include:
- Mains: fried chicken, fried fish, ham hocks, pig’s feet, and pork ribs
- Sides: stewed greens (mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens, and seasoned meat), Blackeyed peas, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread
- Desserts: peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, banana pudding, or pound cake
Cajun cuisine (Mardi Gras is February 21st!) came from the descendants of French Canadians (aka Arcadians), who migrated to Southern Louisiana in the mid-1700s. Cajun cuisine is defined by its use of locally available ingredients and simple preparations. The most common cooking styles for Cajun cuisine are either barbecue, smoking, stewing, deep frying, or grilling.
A few popular Cajun dishes include:
- Dirty Rice (cooked rice made with chicken giblets, ground chicken liver, onions, green bell peppers, and celery)
- Jambalaya (a one-pot meat-andrice dish made of ham, shrimp, crawfish, sausage, rice, tomatoes, green bell peppers, onions, and seasonings)
- Boudin Sausage (unsmoked pork sausage made with rice, green onion, parsley, and seasonings)
Creole is somewhat like Cajun in that it is associated with cooking techniques from France. The primary difference between the two is that Creole uses tomatoes and tomato-based sauces, while Cajun food usually doesn't.
Common and well-known types of Creole foods are:
- Crawfish Étouffée (fresh crawfish, onions, celery, tomato sauce, and rice)
- Bread pudding (stale French bread, milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg)
Gullah cuisine was created by former slaves who migrated to the coastal districts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Northeast Florida after the Civil War, and is very influenced by West African cuisine.
Popular Gullah dishes include:
- Groundnut Soup aka peanut soup (chicken or vegetable broth, peanut butter, evaporated milk, sautéed onions, and seasonings)
- • Gullah Rice (diced chicken breast, chopped tomatoes, chicken or vegetable broth, diced carrots, diced green bell peppers, rice, corn kernels, salt, garlic powder, and black pepper).
Bold Catering & Design offers a “Taste of Peachtree” menu which features all-time Atlanta favorites, including baked macaroni and cheese. Photo courtesy Bold Catering & Design
Low Country cuisine is traditionally associated with Georgia and South Carolina. This cuisine uses a lot of seafood and strongly resembles Creole and Cajun cuisine. Popular dishes in Low Country cuisine include:
- Sweet potato and crab soup
- Okra soup
- Catfish stew
- Shrimp and grits
- Oyster roast
- Macaroni and cheese
- Fried cabbage
- She-crab Soup (fresh female crab meat, milk, heavy cream, butter, Worcestershire sauce, white pepper, and crab roe)
“Floribbean” cuisine marries Asian and Caribbean (Cuban and Haitian) cooking methods with an emphasis on extremely fresh ingredients, spices, seafood and poultry, and the use of fresh fruits and juices.
Popular ingredients and flavors in Floribbean cuisine include:
- Key lime
The above information was collected from Katom and Prepared Foods.
Fresh, flaky, and fried
Amongst most consumers, there is a common misperception that all southern cuisine puts an over emphasis on fat and grease, and that everything has to be fried.
“People tend to think of ‘Down South’ as all barbeque, gravy, and mac and cheese,” says Gordon. “They're not wrong, we have a lot of all that, but it's far from the whole story. Lots of people assume that Southern cooking is super fatty and greasy; I think we're certainly not afraid to use fat, but we also love freshness and flavor. In my experience the best ‘Down South’ cooking respects fat as a flavor and texture booster but doesn't use it to smother natural flavors and textures.”
Forget the classic buffet BBQ setup–trade it for a savory sundae. Grab a pail and your guests can feast their eyes on their choice of base, from mashed potatoes to mac and cheese, before picking their protein, whether it’s smoked pork shoulder, roasted pulled chicken or smoked beef brisket. Get lost in the sauce, with options from honey brown sugar and North Carolina vinegar to mango chipotle, and top it all off with coleslaw, cheese, pickled or fresh jalapenos or corn. Like a true sundae, it’s not complete without a moonshine-soaked cherry on top. Photo courtesy Bold Catering & Design
Many southern dishes focus on fresh, local ingredients–seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, and other regional ingredients.
“To me, when talking about southern cuisine I think purple hull peas, fresh tomatoes off the vine with just a sprinkle of salt, warm biscuits dripping with butter, and oyster dressing at holidays,” Gordon says.
The south is most often associated with rich, savory dishes, but sweetsm can play just as important of a role at the dinner table. “‘Down South’ really sings when it comes to flaky, buttery pies mounded with in-season fruit, and decadent pound cakes with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. And rustic cobblers, crisps, and crumbles! And pecan everything,” Gordan says.
Food as a feeling
A common opinion amongst chefs who specialize in southern fare is that the secret ingredients are heart and soul.
"Southern cooking has to have a lot of heart and it has to have a lot of soul, and that’s something you can’t replicate,” says Chef Jimmy Gentry with Paradox Catering & Consulting (Memphis). “A recipe is a recipe, but you have to give it a heart, you have to give it a soul because if you’re not putting your love into it, it’s not going to be what it’s supposed to be.”
“Southern cooking is about family and food that isn’t fussy, but you have still taken the time to prepare,” says Leslie LaSorsa with Crave Catering (Austin). "It has layers of flavor, creaminess and other textures.”
But don’t expect recipes to play too much of a role in southern cuisine though.
“Overall, I think ‘Down South’ cooking and baking tends to be somewhat intuitive—we have our recipes, but there's a certain willingness to experiment, substitute, adapt, and borrow,” Gordon says. “It’s that special kind of ‘taste and see’ that I love and appreciate.”
It’s that need for soul and heart that has made southern cuisine quite unlike anything else.
“You can feel it when you take a bite of something and it resonates in your bones,” says Chef Kelly English (Memphis). “There’s a real history and purpose with the food we associate with the south.”
Here are just a few 'Down South' recipes to help get you in the mood to celebrate Mardi Gras coming up on February 21st.
Recipe and photo courtesy Chef Todd Ruiz, The RK Group
- Heat oven to 325 degrees.
- Butter silicon molds, lightly dust molds with flour and shake out excess.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and nutmeg and set aside. In another bowl whisk eggs, vanilla, and set aside.
- In electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter on medium high until fluffy and light, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add sugar and honey, beat again until mixture is light and fluffy.
- Add eggs mixture a few tablespoons at a time, beating well for about two to three minutes.
- Raise speed on mixture to high and beat until thick and a light color, about four to five minutes.
- Add flour in three batches, beating to just combine after each addition
- Bake in oven until fully cooked and slightly golden brown.
Ingredients for Honey Icing
Mix all ingredients well.
Cornflake-Crusted Chicken & Waffles & Slaw
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe and photo courtesy Chef Grant MacPherson
Ingredients for Slaw
- In a large bowl, toss the cabbage and carrots.
- In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, vinegar, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.
- Toss the cabbage and carrots with the dressing and set aside.
Ingredients for Chicken and Waffles
- Preheat a deep fryer or large heavy-bottomed pot filled with the grapeseed oil to 375 degrees F.
- Over high heat, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the chicken to the boiling water and boil for about 5 minutes. Use tongs to transfer the chicken to a paper-towel lined baked sheeting and pat dry.
- On a large plate, add 1 cup of flour. In a medium shallow
- bowl, beat 3 of the eggs. On another large plate, add the crushed cornflakes. Dredge all of the chicken pieces in the flour, shaking off the excess. Dip them in the eggs, letting any excess drip off. Coat them in the corn flakes. Fry the encrusted chicken in a few small batches, do not overcrowd them, for 3 to 4 minutes, until golden brown. Use tongs to transfer the chicken to a paper towellined baking sheet. When all of the chicken has been fried, remove and discard the paper towels.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and ½ tsp of salt, making sure there are no lumps. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla extract until fully incorporated. Slowly whisk the buttermilk mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients. Whisk to incorporate but do not overmix. Let the batter rest for about 10 minutes.
- Preheat waffle iron to medium-high, and lightly oil with cooking spray. Pour ½ cups of batter into the iron based on its size. Close the top and cook for 4 or 5 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy. Transfer the waffle to the oven rack to keep warm and repeat with the remaining batter.
- To serve, set one waffle offcenter on each plate. Place coleslaw across from the waffle and lean 2 pieces of chicken against each waffle. Drizzle everything with honey.
Bread & Butter Pickles
Recipe and photo courtesy Chef Todd Ruiz, The RK Group
- Dry roast onions, shallots, garlic, pickling spice, fennel seed, thyme, peppercorns, and cloves for 15 minutes.
- Place aromatics into a cheesecloth.
- In a tilt skillet add water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and aromatics over high heat. Stir until sugar is fully dissolved.
- Pour over cucumbers and seal tightly.
- Hold for two days before serving.
“Shady Wake” Southern Pecan Pie
Recipe and photo courtesy Kat Gordon, Muddy’s Bake Shop
- In a large, heat proof bowl (such as a wide Pyrex) beat the eggs.
- In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, brown sugar, syrup, and butter. Stir constantly and heat until it comes barely to a boil- bubbling, but not rolling.
- While whisking the eggs, slowly pour in the hot syrup mixture. Do not stop whisking as you pour and don’t just dump it all in or else you’ll cook the eggs and end up with a sugary egg scramble!
- Add the vanilla and salt and stir well. Allow the filling to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
- While the filling cools, toast your pecan pieces and par-bake your pie crust.
*To Par-Bake a Crust
Using a fork, prick lightly about 6 times evenly around the pie. Line completely with foil (make sure to press foil into the fluting if edges are fluted). Partially fill with pie weights (or use dried beans). Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove dried beans and foil, brush with egg wash (optional), and proceed with your pie’s recipe.
**To Toast Pecan Pieces
- Spread out on a foil lined baking sheet and toast 350 degree oven approximately 6-9 minutes. You should be able to smell their pleasant aroma when you open the oven, but they shouldn’t look scorched or blackened.
- When you’re ready to assemble the pie, spread the pecans in the bottom of the crust, then carefully pour the filling over the pecans. Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes. When finished, the crust should be a deep bronzed color and the filling should be set with a slight jiggle—not hard or stiff.
- Let cool to room temperature and enjoy. Option to serve with boozy whipped cream!
Ingredients for Boozy Whipped Cream
Combine all ingredients in very clean glass, Pyrex, or metal bowl with NO GREASE OR OIL ON IT and beat with a hand mixer (or if you really want to get a work out, do it with a whisk) for several minutes until billowy peaks form.
- Pie shell: This recipe is best suited for either a 9” “deep style” tin or a shallower 10” aluminum pie tin.
- Pecan pieces: I prefer to use pieces rather than whole or halves. I find that when I toast them, there’s more pecan exposed to the toasting, which brings out more flavor. Also, the pie itself is a little easier to slice with pieces rather than big ole’ hunks of pecan!
- Bourbon: some folks love a pecan pie with bourbon flavor. Just add 2-3 tsp bourbon along with the vanilla. Inhale the aroma once it’s mixed in and if it smells how you want it to taste, you’re good to go.
Sorghum Glazed American Lamb Chops, Black Eyed Peas, and Pickled Mustard Greens
Recipe courtesy Chef Jammir Gry, Compline Restaurant
Photo courtesy American Lamb Board
Ingredients for Sorghum Glaze
In a small pan simmer all ingredients together on low until syrupy, about 10-15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Ingredients for Pickled Mustard Greens
- In a medium size pot, boil together the apple cider vinegar, water, sugar, salt, yellow mustard seeds and garlic. Once it boils, stir in the mustard leaves.
- Remove from the heat and let it come to room temperature before refrigerating.
Ingredients for Black-Eyed Peas
- In a medium pot, brown the salt pork until it begins to turn golden brown. Add in the yellow onion, celery, carrot and continue to sauté until the vegetables are soft. Add garlic and cook until fragrant.
- Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover the beans by an inch. Turn the heat on high and once they start to boil, turn the heat down to low. Cook until tender.
Ingredients for American Lamb Chops
- Season the double lamb chops with salt and pepper. Cook on a hot grill until desired temperature, turning as needed to brown all sides.
- In the last minute before the lamb is done brush the lamb with the Sorghum Glaze, making sure to get all the sides. Remove from the heat and allow the lamb to rest.
- To assemble: Cut the rack into single chops and plate with the Black-Eyed Peas. Garnish with the Pickled Mustard Leaves and additional Sorghum Glaze.
Recipe and photo courtesy Chef Todd Ruiz, The RK Group
- Drain pimento peppers well, pat dry slightly if needed
- Place cream cheese and lemon juice into food processor and allow to mix and soften by pulsing a few times
- Put pickles and pimento pepper into processor and pulse until well incorporated
- Pulse in shredded cheese and salt and pepper
- Leave pimento cheese semi chunky